AFSC & Quakers Part II: A Brand In Trouble

In the first post, I concluded by proffering a thesis: that AFSC’s relationship to the RSOF is more important to its overall financial future than the immediate numbers suggest. That is, the direct proportion of donations from Friends today may be small compared to the group’s total income. But it is the Quaker “Reputation of Truth” in the larger world – the “F” in the AFSC – that attracts the bulk of the funds. It’s what makes the organization financially viable at all.

Thus, I believe the road back to health for AFSC winds through the source of this Friendly “Reputation.” And I contend further that this “Reputation” is in trouble, and needs attention, from AFSC as well as other Quaker actors.

Kimt Apple TreeThink of Quakerism as like an apple tree: while they and others have been busy picking its fruit, eyes fixed on the branches above, beneath their feet the roots have been neglected, and have begun to

These “roots” are no less than the actual constituency of people around the globe who make up the Religious Society of Friends, in its varied incarnations and with its 360-year history. For better and for worse, that’s what “Quakerism” is.

And these roots are tangled, no question. Actual Quakers are an unruly and confusing lot. Our history is convoluted and contested. Furthermore, my view is that the past generation or two of Quakers (i.e., mine) has been a rather undistinguished lot: mostly uninspired and uninspiring.

But there’s the rub: Amid this disarray, actual Quakers are still the seedbed and incubator of whatever empirical Quakerism is to become. And if actual Quakerism is a mess, its wider “Reputation” is sure to suffer, eventually if not right away. And with that larger decline, those bodies that depend on that larger esteem will suffer as well.

I believe such a broader decline is well underway.

Tangled Roots - old oak

Here let me switch from horticultural metaphor to a more mundane frame: marketing. “Quaker” is a brand, for more than oatmeal. It’s a brand which has commanded a lot of public goodwill.

And now the brand is in trouble. Not catastrophically dramatic-BP-oilspill trouble. More like melting iceberg trouble: drip, drip, drip.

AFSC didn’t create this brand and doesn’t control it. Yet AFSC is built on the brand, and has a big role to play in repairing it.

Quaker Oats jet man
This brand is a lot more than oatmeal

That’s not been seen as an AFSC responsibility for a long time. Small wonder: when actual Quakerism is viewed without sentimentality or romance, it’s easy to experience at least a flash of panic, even an urge to flee.

Over the past couple of generations, that’s what many Quaker institutions have done – one thinks of the schools as well as AFSC: they have carefully distanced themselves from these snarled and messy “roots.” Instead they’ve taken cover under something called “Quaker values”: nonviolence, equality, peace, consensus, and so forth.

Unfortunately, when examined, these values turn out to be little more than a set of safe abstractions. There’s hardly anything that’s particularly “Quaker” about them, and it’s hardly a surprise that in the groups espousing them, agendas appear driven by secular (excuse me, “spiritual”) liberal fashions and factions, with a more or less lefty tinge.

Not that these values are “false”; they’re simply disconnected. AFSC’s own Mission Statement says as much: “We recognize that the leadings of the Spirit and the principles of truth found through Friends’ experience and practice are not the exclusive possession of any group.”

Well, sure. But in that case, what if any “exclusive possession” does AFSC have? If it’s only these “values,” why bother with AFSC? Take “peace.” Many groups seek and work for it. Equality? The NAACP was there first. Nonviolence? There are numerous other advocates nowadays. Relief work? AFSC is small fry in that world.

Any good marketer knows that a brand has to maintain some distinctive identity to stay viable in the marketplace. And here, it’s not abstract “values” that distinguishes AFSC; it’s the Quaker brand.

And the Quaker brand needs work. AFSC has a substantial role to play in that renewal project. Given its history over the past several decades, however, taking up the role will likely be traumatic for its corporate culture. Which is why this period of transition and retrenchment is as good a time as any to make the pivot.

What can AFSC do? We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Marketing circle

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